HC Deb 22 October 1985 vol 84 cc133-4
6. Mr. Hicks

asked the Secretary of State for Defence how many representations he has now received following publication of the consultative document on the future of the royal dockyards; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

More than 100 letters have been received by my Department since the announcement on 17 April of a period of consultation on subjects relating to the future management of the royal dockyards. In addition, some 2,000 postcards have been addressed to the Prime Minister by dockyard employees. There has also been a continuing correspondence with industry on aspects of the plans to introduce commercial management to the dockyards.

Mr. Hicks

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that since he announced in July his firm decision to introduce agency management into the royal dockyards there has been a distinct lack of support and enthusiasm? Will he assure the House that between now and the Queen's Speech he will re-examine his proposals with a view to introducing a more sensible option for the future management of the dockyards?

Mr. Heseltine

I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about this matter. There is, of course, a period of uncertainty in the early stages of any change. After careful consideration, the Government reached the view that it would be in the best interests of the Royal Navy, the local economies and, most certainly, the defence budget to move towards a process of commercial management. I would not wish to give my hon. Friend the false impression that I might be prepared to reconsider.

Dr. Owen

Will the Government reply to the criticisms of the Public Accounts Committee, especially that the proposals could increase the cost of the defence budget? In view of the massive strain now being placed on the defence budget, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to consider this whole question afresh?

Mr. Heseltine

No, because one of the purposes of moving to commercial management was to secure tens of millions of pounds of possible economies from the enhanced efficiency in the dockyards. Obviously, that must be my prime responsibility as Secretary of State.

Mr. Douglas

Should not the Secretary of State refer to the strictures of the Select Committee on Defence about his preferred option? Will he acknowledge that what is happening at Rosyth and Devonport is a diminution of morale in a very essential part of our labour force? Will he assure us that what happened with Redpole will not happen again—when a ship put into the hands of private enterprise had a number of deficiencies, was hawked into the yard at Rosyth and the work force took grave exception to the way in which it was treated? When does the Secretary of State hope to report to the House on the effect of that on our strategic deterrents?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman has given a very one-sided account of what happened. The work force at Rosyth would do itself more good if it was actually showing the efficiency that it can achieve. and which it pointed out as being an option within the management of the dockyards.

The most encouraging development that has emerged since I last reported to the House on this matter is that, following informal consultations with the dockyard industrial work force, it appears that we shall be able to secure the enhanced efficiency and the reduction of numbers that we seek largely through voluntary redundancy and early retirement.

In those circumstances, although a state of redundancy technically has to be declared, the process from today's position to the enhanced procedures and efficiencies appears to offer an easier passage than even I believed possible when I first made the proposals.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Is it not a fact that there is no support whatever, either in the House or among informed opinion outside, for the suggestion of commercial management that the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward? The proposal is based not on any form of rational analysis, but is purely party dogma. Will he, even at this late stage, drop this hare-brained scheme, which can only put thousands of people out of work, damage the economies of Devonport and Rosyth and provide a worse service for the Royal Navy in this crucial area?

Mr. Heseltine

I must take a view which puts on the one hand the views of the right hon. Gentleman and on the other the views of the Admiralty Board. I find no difficulty in reaching an easy decision to back the Admiralty Board.